The New Jersey Devils need to wait for the next Patrick Laine.
When the New Jersey Devils traded Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes for Kevin Bahl, Nick Merkley, Nate Schnarr, a conditional first-round pick in 2020 (used on World Juniors standout Dawson Mercer), and a conditional third-round pick in 2021, it effectively served as a changing of the guard for the Garden State’s premier sports franchise.
One of the league’s premier left wingers, Hall was the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Edmonton Oilers before being traded to the Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson in the summer of 2016. Over his 211 game tenure in New Jersey- 216 if you count the playoffs – Hall was a near-point-a-game performer with 76 goals and 132 assists to his name, but in an unfortunate turn of events for the Devils, it became rather obvious that their shared timelines were rapidly divulging.
After an underwhelming tenure together that resulted in a single playoff series and a whole lot of disappointment, the Devils made the uncomfortable decision to build around developmental centers Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes and kick their contention window a few more years down the line.
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Why is this relevant? Because a similar situation is going on just East of Edmonton in perfectly temperate Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Since breaking onto the scene in 2016, Patrick Laine has rapidly developed into one of the NHL’s premier sharpshooting wingers – having scored 138 goals in 305 regular-season contests with the Jets. Measuring in at 6-foot-5, 206-pounds, Laine has fantastic size, a whip-quick wrist, and one of the deadliest shots in the entire NHL. In theory, he’s the exact type of player a franchise would like to build around, but for whatever reason, the Jets haven’t been particularly receptive to that idea.
No, as highlighted by our friends over at Sportsnet, the Jets really like Laine in their middle-six even if he’s arguably the team’s best overall player, and this perceived disrespect has caused a rift between the two camps. While Laine did thrive whenever given a chance to play alongside Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor atop Paul Maurice’s rotation, when the Jets acquired Cody Eakin from the Golden Knights at the 2020 NHL trade deadline, the Finnish power forward was once again returned to the middle-six, where he played for the majority of the team’s post-deadline games.
If the Jets were a Stanley Cup contender like the Tampa Bay Lightning, this wouldn’t be as big of a deal. Nikita Kucherov spent two of the Lightning’s final four games of the NHL Final on the third line to make way for Tyler Johnson, and he’s still one of Tampa Bay’s premier players.
Why Laine is being held out of a top-line role, however, feels different. Despite his scoring prowess, the 22-year-old struggled mightily on the ice after a scorching hot November and Paul Maurice opted to instead go with veteran forward Blake Wheeler, who is already locked into an RW1-level contract through the 2023-24 season.
Boy, if only there was a team with another 22-year-old European top-liner who could grow with Laine and dish him a few dimes along the line.
If the New Jersey Devils could land a player like Laine, it would unquestionably make the team better. Laine is arguably a better player than Hall when he arrived in Newark, has a higher upside, and at 22-years-old in three years younger than the top-pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. Whether paired up with Hirscher, used as a developmental catalyst for Hughes on the second line, or paired up with the duo on a pass-happy power play paired up with Will Butcher and P.K. Subban.
That team would immediately become a playoff contender, maybe even the odds-on favorite to win the fourth seed in the new East Division behind the Philadelphia Flyers, the Washington Capitals, and the Boston Bruins.
But what’s that team’s ceiling? Probably a fourth seed in the East.
Now sure, in theory, the Devils are the exact type of team perfectly lined up to make a move for Laine. While they don’t have the ideal, top-tier defensive player the Jets would surely demand to land Laine, the Devils have players quality defenders like Damon Severson, young prospects like Ty Smith and the whole ex-Cardinals crew, and even a super-high-end right wing shooter in Alexander Holtz who could develop into a 20-plus goal scorer sooner rather than later. Package some collection of those players together – a win-now player here and a developmental prospect there – and a savvy GM could surely convince his fanbase that this is the right move for the franchise moving forward.
But again, is it the right move for a team like the Devils? I’d venture to say no.
As tough as it is to admit, the Devils are not a deeply talented team. Sure, they have a decent enough top-six that can hang with most teams at full strength, but behind those players (Hischier, Nikita Gusev, Kyle Palmieri, Andreas Johnsson, Hughes, and… I guess Jesper Bratt), New Jersey isn’t what you’d call a deep team. Sure, they have a few promising players like Janne Kuokkanen and Jesper Boqvist, quality role players like Pavel Zacha and Travis Zajac, and developmental players like Holtz and Michael McLeod who may see minutes on later this season, but can those players really keep the Devils deep into games in a playoff series against the Flyers? Can their defense hold up minus a player like Severson, Butcher, or even Subban when defense isn’t exactly the Devils’ strong suit?
As tough as it is to admit, the New Jersey Devils need to take their rebuilding ‘process’ seriously and can’t really start to cut corners until they are ‘a player away’ from being playoff heavy hitters.
Who knows, maybe one day Taylor Hall’s current linemate Jack Eichel will grow tired of not making the playoffs and will demand a trade in a year or two. Maybe Pierre-Luc Dubois will make good on his trade demands entering the final year of his new two-year extension. Heck, maybe everyone’s favorite Jersey native, Johnny Gaudreau, finally becomes available, and Tom Fitzgerald scoops him up when the team is a bit further along. But right now, with the 2020-21 season right over the horizon, it’d probably be a better use of the New Jersey Devils’ time to see what they already have under contract before trying to target external pieces to fight for a fourth seed – even if said player is a perfect fit on their roster both now and moving forward.